Reversibility Principle in Sports Training: Definition & Example

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  • 0:03 Reversibility Principle
  • 0:35 Detraining and Loss
  • 2:45 Using Reversibility to Train
  • 3:56 Recovering from Reversibility
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

Have you ever stopped working out because of an injury or illness after training diligently for years? In this lesson, we'll discuss the principle of reversibility and explore examples of what happens to your body when you stop and then start working out again.

Reversibility Principle

The reversibility principle is a concept that states when you stop working out, you lose the effects of training. It is sometimes referred to as the ''use it or lose it'' principle. This sounds like common sense, but the science behind the reversibility principle is more complex. Moreover, on the plus side, it states that when you resume working out, you begin to make gains again. While the reversibility principle is often perceived as a negative thing, exercise physiologists are discovering that it can be a positive thing as well.

Detraining and Loss

The reversibility principle is sometimes synonymously called detraining. When athletes work out on a regular basis, they are said to be ''in training.'' When athletes stop working out, for whatever reason, they are said to be ''in detraining.'' There are several reasons an athlete may quit working out and go into detraining:

  • Illness
  • Injury
  • Lack of motivation
  • Other time commitments
  • Prohibitive costs for certain sports
  • Travel commitments
  • Weather

After athletes stop their workout routines and enter into a detraining period, reversibility occurs rather quickly. There is no exact rule because everyone's body is unique, but the training loss occurs at about one-third the rate of the gains. The loss of various physical skills can occur in just one to two weeks. Most athletes tend to lose muscular endurance the most, followed by muscular power, and finally followed by muscular strength. Athletes also tend to lose their aerobic capacity, gained through sports such as running and cycling, more quickly than they lose muscle strength.

Also, some studies show senior citizens will lose flexibility gains faster than they will lose balance gains. Some athletes lose all of their workout gains in as little as two months, while for others it can take as long as eight months. How quickly athletes lose their gains depends on several factors, including age, how fit the athlete is, how long the athlete has been exercising, what level the athlete was at in a particular exercise, and what type of exercise the athlete was doing.

Let us say that, because of a knee injury, you have to stop your daily jog through the neighborhood. You quit the aerobic training, also known as cardiovascular training, you were doing. Soon, your heart will not be able to pump as efficiently as it was previously. Your muscles will no longer be able to process oxygen as well as they once did. Your body will not be able to burn carbs (carbohydrates) for fuel as efficiently as before. Your blood pressure may increase, your bad cholesterol (LDL) may increase, and your blood sugar levels may negatively spike.

Using Reversibility to Train

Some athletes, such as weightlifters, will eventually reach a plateau where they can no longer improve. They will then deliberately take a few weeks off to rest the body. In certain cases, when they return to working out, they can break through that plateau and actually perform at a level higher than the one they'd achieved before they stopped working out. The lifter can use the two concepts of overload and rest to accomplish a goal of improving.

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